The true cause of the Raac crisis

In the early 2010s, the Tories slashed the schools budget. Now, we are paying the price

September 06, 2023
Education secretary Gillian Keegan leaving a cabinet meeting yesterday. Image:  Uwe Deffner / Alamy Stock Photo
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan leaving a cabinet meeting yesterday. Image: Uwe Deffner / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the best things done by the last Labour government was its tenfold increase in capital spending on England’s schools. By 2010, more than £10bn a year of school capital funding (in 2023 terms) was being spent to refurbish or replace every English school through the “Building Schools for the Future” programme, with a target date of this year—2023—for completion of all 24,000.

Alas, Building Schools for the Future was the first victim of austerity. Within weeks of the 2010 election, it was abolished by Cameron, Osborne and Gove. Within three years, school capital spending was more than halved, and it had remained there or lower ever since. 

You don’t need to know much more than that to understand the Raac (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) crisis and why so many schools are falling down.

Except one further fact. More than 600 completely new “free schools” have been set up since 2010, all of which also needed new or refurbished buildings, drawn from this same reduced capital budget. So even less was available for existing school buildings—hence the replacement rate of only 50 schools a year in recent years.

These free schools are to some extent modelled on the academies which I set up as schools minister in the 2000s—but with two big differences. My academies were drawing from a larger, not a smaller, overall capital pool. And most of my academies replaced existing schools, modernising their buildings in the process. That was part of the transformation formula to make them good schools. They weren’t set up in competition with defunded schools, as has largely been the case since 2010 for ideological reasons.

It is a grim story, but not a new one. Before New Labour, state school buildings had been historically underfunded in England, part and parcel of the neglect of the public realm by successive postwar governments. This is part of the reason why the nation’s educational performance was so comparatively low until the 2000s.

In the 1990s, there were still lots of schools with outside toilets and dilapidated prefab Portakabins installed in the 1970s when the school leaving age was raised from 15 to 16. This should have happened after 1945, but was cancelled because there wasn’t the money even for the Portakabins immediately after the war. It was then planned and cancelled again in the 1960s because of—surprise, surprise—public spending cuts following the devaluation of sterling in 1967.

All this is a world apart from England’s private school sector, which has had multiples more capital spending per head than the state system over recent decades as fees have rocketed and wealthy donors contributed. It is part of the reason why so many of the affluent middle classes opt out of the state system and pay fees on average twice the amount spent on state school pupils.

As schools minister in the 2000s, I had hoped it would all be so different. I hoped that good school facilities as well as teaching would be the norm rather than the exception in the state system, and that only social snobbery—and a fairly unenlightened form of it—would lead parents to opt for private education.

Fortunately, the quality of teaching is generally better than the condition of the buildings in the state system. But you can’t separate the two entirely, particularly in the provision of a wide curriculum including the arts and sports, and the push to go private has remained undiminished among those who can afford it.

“Education, education, education” was Tony Blair’s mantra. “Raac Update: Most Schools Unaffected” is the best the Sunak government can manage this week.